MARQUETTE – It is estimated that more than 20 million people passed through Ellis Island, the chief center for United States immigration from 1892 until 1954. As a result of the mining industry in the Upper Peninsula, many of these immigrants made their homes here and founded a diverse community of Finnish, German, Italian, Polish and other citizens.
A century later, evidence of the Ellis Island immigrants who came to this area is everywhere; but it is especially visible in the last names of the families who have resided here for generations.
Upon reaching Ellis Island, many immigrants were forced to shorten long names.
“Finnish names tended to be long, but easy to pronounce and thus easy to shorten,” said Russell Magnaghi, a history professor at Northern Michigan University, the site of Finn Grand Fest 2005. “But Polish and Russian names were mostly unpronouncable, so it was impossible to shorten them and they stayed as they were.”
Matti Korpela, a Finnish immigrant who came to the U.P. in 1905, was assigned the new, shorter name “Korpi” to begin his new life.
“Matti was only 17 or 18 years old when he came to the United States, and it’s rumored that he left to escape being drafted by the Russian army,” said Barbara Korpi, who is married to Matti’s son, Matt Jr. “He had relatives in Ishpeming who owned a boarding house, so that’s where he settled. He worked in logging and in the mines, and created a niche for the generations who came after him. The Korpis are still a big mining family, and many of them still live in Ishpeming. They’ve been here for a century now, which is amazing.”
In the case of the Maki family, it was usually the first part of the name that was chopped off instead of the end.
“My family’s name was originally made up of two Finnish words,” said Kathy Maki, a secretary at NMU. “’Maki,’ which means ‘hill,’ was at the end of the name, and the word at the beginning specifically told where on ‘the hill’ my family was from. But since it was a complicated word, they cut it out of our name entirely.”
Many immigrants, alert that their names might be too difficult to travel with, changed them before arriving to Ellis Island. A lot of the Makis purposely shortened their original last names before traveling, and some even went the extra mile and adopted the English translation “hill” as their last name instead.
On Aug. 10-14, thousands of descendants of Finnish-American and Canadian families will bring their “new” and original names to Marquette’s Finn Grand Fest, the annual traveling festival that celebrates Finnish culture and heritage. The week will include several activities, such as live Finnish music, a wife-carrying contest and ethnic art exhibits. For more information, go to www.finngrandfest2005.com .